Recalling 125 Years of Devotion
By Larry Zengri, Covenant Companion
Larry Zengri has had a lifelong devotion to Santa Maria Incoronata, along with many in the Chicago-area Italian American community. On September 11, 2022, nearly 500 people gathered to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of this festival honoring the nativity of the Holy Mother. This annual celebration is the effort of Club Santa Maria Incoronata (SMI).
Club SMI, which was built on the foundation of faith and family, began in 1897 in the area of Chicago where most of the residents originally came from Ricigliano in Sicily. In this Italian town the residents had a devotion to Santa Maria Incoronata: a beautiful statue was a tangible symbol of the Madonna.
The statue was carried to the fields in the Spring and remained there until after the Fall harvest. There is a beautiful replica of the Italian statue in Chicago which was carved in Naples from a pear tree and covered in plaster. It has been the centerpiece of the annual September festival in Chicago. The Chicago Club members, with the patronage of a wealthy Irish woman, helped with the development and dedication of a church devoted to this Madonna in 1904.
Larry remembers a call going out in 1952 to parishioners of SMI asking for donations of gold to help create a set of gold crowns for Mary and Infant. His widowed grandmother gave her wedding ring set. Larry also relates many wonderful memories that show his and the community’s devotion.
His earliest memory is awakening at 6am on the morning of the procession to the booming sound of an “aerial bomb” used to rouse the neighborhood on this special day! His mother then scrubbed the porch and sidewalk to prepare for the Virgin passing their home. Larry sat on the porch in his best Sunday clothes until it was time for the Mass that preceded the festival.
He recalls his mother holding his hand as they participated in the procession. Larry became a member of Club SMI when he was 19 and continues today as an honorary member. He attended the festivities faithfully until health issues prevented this.
Other cherished memories include the many years he was one of eight individuals to carry a large platform to transport the statue of Santa Maria Incoronata. The heavy but treasured burden, weighing about 1000 pounds, was carried approximately four miles through the local neighborhoods in a procession that lasted several hours, with many stops at individual homes to visit the sick.
Larry reports kaleidoscopic images of Italian bands playing music as they processed, as well as women singing and others praying the rosary. Wonderful fragrances of Italian cooking—tomato sauce, meatballs, fried peppers— permeated the area. Celebratory fireworks accompanied them. The day ended with benediction followed by a delicious meal of Italian food for all, which was sponsored by Club Santa Maria Incoronata. This continues to this day.
Even the construction of the Dan Ryan freeway with its disruption of the neighborhood, the influx of a Chinese immigrant population and the renaming of the Parish to St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission did not affect Santa Maria Incoronata’s place of honor in the existing Church nor the annual celebration. What a beautiful way for Club SMI to express their devotion and love and to share this with the diverse community.
Thank you, Larry, for sharing your precious recollections!